The New York Times reported yesterday that the latest burgeoning field of academic focus is something called “animal studies.” What, you might ask, is animal studies?
The courses are part of the growing, but still undefined, field of animal studies. So far, according to Marc Bekoff, an emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, the field includes “anything that has to do with the way humans and animals interact.” Art, literature, sociology, anthropology, film, theater, philosophy, religion — there are animals in all of them.
The field builds partly on a long history of scientific research that has blurred the once-sharp distinction between humans and other animals. Other species have been shown to have aspects of language, tool use, even the roots of morality. It also grows out of a field called cultural studies, in which the academy has turned its attention over the years to ignored and marginalized humans.
And who or what might have sparked this new field’s existence? Why philosophers, of course!
The most direct influence may have come from philosophy. Peter Singer’s 1975 book “Animal Liberation” was a landmark in arguing against killing, eating and experimenting on animals. He questioned how humans could exclude animals from moral consideration, how they could justify causing animals pain.
Lori Gruen, head of the philosophy department at Wesleyan and coordinator of the summer fellowship program in animal studies there, said one of the major questions in philosophy was “Who should we direct our moral interest to?” Thirty years ago, she said, animals were at the margins of philosophical discussions of ethics; now “the animal question is right in the center of ethical discussion.”
Right where it should be.
Are you planning to catch the Ringling Bros. circus the next time it comes to town? If so, perhaps you should think twice. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Deborah Nelson just finished a one-year investigation into the company’s treatment of its animals, and the resulting article paints an ugly picture of unethical treatment by Ringling (and its parent corporation, Feld Entertainment) and inaction by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
A yearlong Mother Jones investigation shows that Ringling elephants spend most of their long lives either in chains or on trains, under constant threat of the bullhook, or ankus—the menacing tool used to control elephants. They are lame from balancing their 8,000-pound frames on tiny tubs and from being confined in cramped spaces, sometimes for days at a time. They are afflicted with tuberculosis and herpes, potentially deadly diseases rare in the wild and linked to captivity. Barack, a calf born on the eve of the president’s inauguration, had to leave the tour in February for emergency treatment of herpes—the second time in a year. Since Kenny’s death, 3 more of the 23 baby elephants born in Ringling’s vaunted breeding program have died, all under disturbing circumstances that weren’t fully revealed to the public.
Despite years of denials, Kenneth Feld has now admitted under oath that his trainers routinely “correct” elephants by hitting them with bullhooks, whipping them, and on occasion using electric prods. He even admitted to witnessing it.
But perhaps more disturbing still is the government’s failure to act. Since Kenny’s death, the USDA has conducted more than a dozen investigations of Feld Entertainment. Inspectors have found baby elephants injured and bound at Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. Whistleblowers have stepped forward with harrowing accounts of beatings. Activists have released even more videos of elephant abuse, and local humane authorities have documented wounds and lameness.
None of that has moved regulators to action.
You can read the full story here.
That’s what People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) charges in its latest lawsuit:
Can killer whales sue SeaWorld for enslavement? A lawsuit filed Wednesday by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other “next friends” of five SeaWorld killer whales takes that novel legal approach.
The 20-page complaint asks the U.S. District Court in Southern California to declare that the five whales — Tilikum, Katina, Corky, Kasatka, and Ulises — are being held in slavery or involuntary servitude in violation of the 13th Amendment.
A PETA statement said the lawsuit is the first of its kind in contending that constitutional protections against slavery are not limited to humans.
“Plaintiffs were forcibly taken from their families and natural habitats, are held captive at SeaWorld San Diego and SeaWorld Orlando, denied everything that is natural to them, subjected to artificial insemination or sperm collection to breed performers for defendants’ shows, and forced to perform, all for defendants’ profit,” the lawsuit says, arguing that those conditions amount to enslavement and/or forced servitude.
You can read more about PETA’s position on the organization’s web site:
Orcas are intelligent animals who, in the wild, work cooperatively, form complex relationships, communicate using distinct dialects, and swim up to 100 miles every day. At SeaWorld, they are forced to swim in circles in small, barren concrete tanks. Deprived of the opportunity to make conscious choices and to practice their cultural vocal, social, and foraging traditions, they are compelled to perform meaningless tricks for a reward of dead fish.
Our understanding of animals grows every day. Animals are no longer regarded as “things” to dominate, but as breathing, feeling beings with families, dialects, intellect, and emotions. Just as we look back with shame at a time when we enslaved other humans and viewed some people as property less deserving of protection and consideration, we will look back on our treatment of these animals with shame. The 13th Amendment exists to abolish slavery in all its forms — and this lawsuit is the next step.
PETA is certainly taking a novel approach, though I’m not sure the lawsuit has a legal future:
State and federal courts have traditionally understood laws dealing with animal ownership and cruelty as applying only to human actions, meaning the animals themselves could neither be prosecuted nor act as plaintiffs or defendants. That would include litigation and legislation involving hunting and breeding of animals and plants, as well as zoo and circus displays.
By Michael De Dora
I became a vegetarian in early 2008 because, after a good deal of thought, I decided that eating non-human animals was immoral. I judged that using animals for the sake of pleasure was wrong, and I adopted the moral stance of vegetarianism. Nearly three years later, I am still a vegetarian. Yet the moral basis for my position has changed. Allow me to explain.
I made the switch from omnivore to vegetarian on or around Feb. 18, 2008. That day marked the largest ground beef recall in United States history, after the government learned that cattle unfit for consumption were entering the food supply. Undercover videos shot by the Humane Society showed factory workers kicking and prodding cows with forklifts to get them into the slaughterhouse. I did more research into how animals are treated at factory farms, and my conscience was shaken. How could we treat sentient animals in such ways? I quickly concluded that the factory farming system is inherently bad, as it treats animals as commodities not worthy of moral concern, and I became a vegetarian. I haven’t eaten meat since that day.
However, I now see a flaw in my reasoning. I equated the treatment of animals to the killing of animals. My concern was not the act of killing, but the suffering these animals would endure (and even that is a complex debate, of course, for not all non-human animals have the same capacity to feel pain). I never had a reason to oppose the consumption of animals per se, I only objected to treating them poorly.
Many vegetarians (and vegan, but let’s stick with one position) argue that we should not use animals as a means to some end, but as inherently important, worthy of certain rights and protections. This is a morsel from Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy. Kant argued that every human being is deserving of respect (i.e., moral concern) because of its cognitive faculties – its autonomy, ability to reason, make free choices, and plan for the future. Vegetarians would have us expand this to non-human animals. But there is no reason to suppose that animals have such capacities, and I see little reason – judging from scientific evidence and philosophical thinking – to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Here, then, is where we reach an interesting juncture: if there are no compelling ethical reasons to not kill animals for food, then vegetarianism risks degenerating from a moral stance to the level of preference.
Then again, there may be other compelling reasons in favor of the vegetarian stance. An immediate and undeniable one is the manner in which meat is typically produced, as it relates to the animals themselves.* In the U.S., factory-farmed animals are treated horribly. This matters because of the fact that animals are sentient – that is, they can feel or perceive pain. Thus, one could argue that eating meat is immoral given how the meat is produced. This would once again make vegetarianism a moral stance. This is now the basis of my vegetarianism. In fact, I have realized that it was all along.
Of course, vegetarians like myself can’t just sit out the meat-eating game and claim the highest moral ground. We also need to go out and make our moral case. The means by which humans produce meat for mass consumption are largely immoral, but they need not be so. And I think the key is to focus on improving how we “use” sentient animals. Simply put, we ought to treat the animals that we do eat well before they are killed. Not only do I think this is the correct moral argument to make, but it also seems that it would be more acceptable to society because it’s not really asking very much.
Yet, even if these changes were made, I think I still wouldn’t eat meat. That would no longer be because I think it is morally wrong – it would be because I simply don’t prefer it any longer.
* I specify that this consideration centers on animals because this could also lead to a discussion of the damage that mass meat production does to the environment. This is an important issue, but I didn’t have the time to expand on it in this essay. More here. But notice that we need not completely cut off meat production to make significant improvements in this area.
Note: this essay was first published on the blog Rationally Speaking in January 2011. In the coming months, I will be republishing many of my articles that previously appeared elsewhere in an effort to house more of my work here.
A couple weeks ago I linked to Stephen Budiansky’s critical review of Dale Peterson’s new book, The Moral Lives of Animals. I’ve discovered several reviews since then, two of which are written by author Helene Guldberg: here and here.
I’ve now found an interview with Peterson that, if you’ve not read the book, might help you see exactly where he stands on the matter. Enjoy.
Laboratory rats rallying around their mates. Elephants mounting a daring rescue mission to save a herd of captive antelope. Apes that make love like humans. For decades the scientific establishment has poured scorn on anyone who has dared to suggest that animals are just as moral as human beings. But is this really a ridiculous notion — or could it be that animals are truly moral creatures?
Hi all, I’m back from my posting break.
A couple weeks ago I linked to Stephen Budiansky’s critical review of Dale Peterson’s new book, The Moral Lives of Animals. I’ve discovered several more reviews since then, two of which are written by author Helene Guldberg, who charges:
In his attempt to prove that beasts have morals, Dale Peterson airbrushes away all the things that make humans unique in the animal kingdom.
In the Wall Street Journal, Stephen Budiansky is skeptical of a recent spate of books — most notably Dale Peterson’s The Moral Lives of Animals — that claim humans are not nature’s sole moralists.
What appear on the surface to be instances of insight, reflection, empathy or higher purpose frequently turn out to be a fairly simple learned behavior, of a kind that every sentient species from humans to earthworms exhibits all the time.